How did you meet your husband/wife/partner? It’s not an uncommon question during social occasions. In the past it may well have been the case that you had grown up together, known each other from school, or met at university and known each other for years. Or perhaps you met at work, or had the same friendship groups so there was always someone who you both knew and who knew everything about you. These days it’s becoming increasingly common for couples to meet on the internet, either via general social networking sites such as Facebook, or through dedicated relationship sites such as match.com. The beauty, or the nightmare, of online socialising is that it means you can be whoever you want to be, and give as much or as little information about yourself as you want to. There is no one to check the accuracy of it. This was how Clare Wood met George Appleton.
Few can have missed the announcement of the pilot scheme for the so called “Clare’s Law” which will allow a person to contact the police and request information about their partner’s convictions for domestic violence. Few can have missed the outpouring of derision in the media when the announcement was made. Described as “costly” and “bureaucratic” by Sandra Horley, the chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge , it seems there is little support for this move within the media. Here are a few further observations.
1. The existing laws are already in place, so what is the pilot system actually going to do?
The Home Office press release concerning the pilot schemes (which are to take place in the police force areas of Greater Manchester, Gwent, Nottinghamshire and Wiltshire) states that there will be no need for a legislative change in order to make the information available. So what is likely to happen? The press release describes that “the pilot will test a process for enabling the police to disclose to the public information about previous violent offending by a new or existing partner.” Who knows what that will mean – it could be as simple as producing a specific form to fill in when the request is made. Of more interest will be whether the police in the pilot areas increase the number of disclosures made to people who may be at risk, described as “the right to know”, since the effectiveness of the “right to ask” can only be judged by the number of people making the requests.
2. Has the pilot system in fact already fulfilled all that it can do?
If the existing law already adequately deals with the ability to make the requests and the disclosures then why are more requests not being made for information? If the problem is to do with publicising the “right to ask” then there must have been some inroad into that and public awareness must at least have been raised by the recent media campaign surrounding the announcement of the pilot scheme. The fear then is that, given the negative reaction in the media, people who could benefit from making the enquiries might be put off because they feel that there is no point in asking. By raising the public awareness of this potential to enquire, arguably something (and perhaps all that can be) has already been achieved by the pilot scheme.
3. So many acts of violence go unreported, is there a danger of over reliance on a negative PNC check?
Imagine for a moment the scenario where a woman has heard rumours of her partner’s violent past and has taken the decision to check with the police whether her partner has any convictions. The information provided by the police shows that there are no convictions recorded against him. The woman leaves feeling reassured. The difficulty is that given that the number of incidents of domestic violence that are reported to the police is so few, and the prospects of a case being followed through to conviction are limited for a variety of reasons, the record of convictions doesn’t tell the whole story. How many people, particularly in the first flush of romance, will simply take the attitude that if he wasn’t convicted of it, it didn’t happen?
4. Will it cover harassment?
This is of increasing significance in the cyber-age where stalking through social media, foursquare, Twitter, Find My Friends and other such applications is a very real threat. Harassment is a particularly concerning form of domestic abuse as it involves the element of control and, frequently, psychological and emotional harm being inflicted on the victim. The continued reference to “violence” within the press release suggests that this particularly pernicious form of abuse may not fall within the pilot scheme. As it can be a precursor to physical violence, there is a strong argument that it should come within the scope of the pilot scheme.
5. What might the wider impact be?
Finally, there could be unintended consequences across some areas of family law that will see victims of domestic violence judged more harshly for choosing not to exercise their right to know, or having so chosen (or having been so informed by the police), choosing to remain within the relationship. It is not hard to envisage a paragraph of a threshold document in child care proceedings detailing that a mother had been told of the father’s violent past, and yet chose to remain in the relationship, which later became violent, thereby exposing the child to the risk of harm.
Coupled with all the other criticisms that have been made of the scheme in the press, such as the lack of clarity about how a person will establish they are the partner of the person they are enquiring about, how the use of the information is to be dealt with and so on, it rather begs the question whether the money for the pilot scheme might be put to some better use, even if only a clearer publicity campaign to raise awareness of the “right to ask”. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the pilot scheme is but, sadly, the prediction must be ‘not a lot.’
 Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday 6 March 2012